This interview is a tribute to all urban dancers in Benin. To all those who have been booed, rejected ; to all those who have been tagged, rejected. To all those who continue, even rejected. It’s a tribute to talent which never crumbles even in the jungle, even in this country where having a passion is a sin. But even more, this interview is a tribute to dance made in 229. Of all those warriors, Yann Astro, 23 years and dust, is one the more inspiring. His standing universe falters between dance and medicine, Hip Hop and bistouri, Ori-Art and the weight of a great battle: Make dancing, a respected passion.
What does dance mean to you ?
Dance is my life. Sincerely. When I sleep, I dance. When I wake up, first I think to dance, to the movement I can create. It’s the way I express myself. During exams, or in places you are supposed to be quit, it shuffles in me. It is a drug, it’s stronger than me. And it’s a good drug.
The drug, is it the moves or the music you hear ?
It’s not the music cause I don’t need music to dance. It’s more likely the feeling, what I wanna express. When i’m angry I have a style of dance. When i’m happy, I express it by dancing. It’s true that we dance on music but dance goes beyond that.
What was able to push a guy who used to dance just for pleasure to become professional ?
When someone discover what is dance, in the professional way, when people show you what you can do with your body, there comes a love that can’t be explained. It just come like a trigger as I was looking at my crew dancing. They gave me this motivation, this need to become professional.
How did you become professional ?
I’ve met some dancers in Senegal who taught me the basics of dance. I’ve also had the chance to attend training courses with European dancers. I decided to go for it. At first, I wouldn’t say that it was with a professional purpose. I just wanted to evolve ; I was thirsty of knowledge. We’ve lost a dancer we loved very much, Orianne, whose dream was to create a cultural association to organize events. She was very talented, concerned, , always knowing how to sheer up and motivate us when everything was trouble. She used to tell us we will change hip hop culture in our country. I have willed to realize her dream to pay tribute to her. But here, you need to show the example before talking.
For people to follow you, you have to prove your worth. I started to train thoroughly. When people saw me, the would say: “Waoh, you are getting stronger, can we train with you?”. Step by step, the collective enlarges. We’ve organized battles, festivals, and Ori-Art was born.
So, Ori-Art was born from Orianne’s death …
Ori-Art was born from Orianne’s will to create a cultural association to promote urban dances. With some friends determined to pay homage to her an with other dancers, we’ve set up the association; we register it and started searching for subventions and organizing events.
What are Ori-Art Activities ?
Initially we wanted to change people mindsets, make them understand that dancers are not offenders. It has always been our primary goal. We have started to send for dancers. There are a lot of talented youngsters in Cotonou but as long as anybody don’t show you the right way, you cannot make it. So we send for qualified people able to transmit this art. Being a good dancer doesn’t make a good teacher. These are two distinct things. The came to give training sessions for two consecutive years: teach the different types of dances, so that everyone choose depending on their interest. Then we’ve organized what we called “Le cercle danse” (The circle dance), a gathering of dancers who work on a theme and battle right after, always in good vibes, good energies. Everyone take their measure and see what they lack for. And of course there is the “Cotonou Dance Concept” festival, organized last year and this year. We also send for trainers; there are remunerated battles. And there, as dancers know that they are getting paid eventually, they get serious. Because there, it’s all your art which will earn you money. You won’t come to do whatsoever. So, you really train and you win the jackpot.
Instead of living your passion, you are more interested in un-building the myth around dancers in Benin.
Living one's passion is breaking the myth down. Click To Tweet If you don’t show people that what you’re doing is good and positive, how do you want to live your passion? They will inevitably drown you. Living your passion includes changing people’s mind and show them that you are doing serious stuff.
Why not to bang into it ? Why not live the dreams and prove worth at the same time instead of explaining oneself ?
Everybody cannot prove its worth. There are courageous ones , who are able to brave their parents authority and show that dance, or art in general is not just anything. It is not because you are an artist that you've failed at school. Click To Tweet It is not because you are an artist that you are not capable of good opinions. It is necessary that some people show the way before parents give their approval to children to live this passion. Anybody can’t wake up overnight and want to live on its art. Some won’t even be serious about it and there will always be stray sheeps. They are some among us, artists with bad behaviors. Unfortunately when a tomato is rotten, the whole basket is tossed.
And what are the manifestations of Beninese misconceptions on dancers ?
Modern or hip hop dancers. When you are a traditional dancer, you are credible. When it’s about young people doing popping freezes, parents say: “No, you are doing nothing good”. When you have to go to competitions; “No, no more time for fun. Studies first”. In the same time some dancers have their pants falling, ear rings, cigarettes, and it’s normal that it gives us bad reputation.
How do these attributes picture a bad behavior ?
I wouldn’t recommend tobacco to anyone. Why walk with your butt naked ? You can be a dancer without being atypical. Be atypical through your art, don’t be atypical in society. You can blend in the masses but why seek individualization, why show that you are the artist? Many people seek individualization from their behavior and clothing style rather than seeking singularization through their art.
How does one individualize itself in dance ?
When I started dancing, I used to hide. I wait for everyone to sleep, around one (01) or two (02) o’clock in the morning, to train until 6 o’clock. During daytime, I used to go to school. My parents had no idea I was dancing, at the beginning. When I decided to start the association, I was told : “ Oh no, it’s bullshit. These are stories. You are going to ruin yourself. You don’t know what you are getting into”. I didn’t listen to them. To prove myself I went to see sponsors to get some subventions. They would say: “What? You dance? It’s anything!”. With some dancers, we’ve gathered some money and organized tiny events that we filmed and showed to people. They would then say: “Oh, But you are doing serious stuff!”. We moved, we went to Porto-Novo, Calavi, to give free courses o children. Our goal was to go in every town in Benin and give free courses to children. In schools, we would say to little ones : “I you don’t have good marks, you won’t continue to dance with us”. They eventually got a taste for dance and marks. Dancing helped them at school. They could live their passion ant continue to study. For me it’s already a way to prove that dance is something.
How much have you got, yourself, in your pockets ?
Me, as a organizer, I could not take part in mes own events. Let’s say that I’ve got plenty out my pockets. I had to contribute. People wouldn’t help us. Apart the swiss cooperation which helped us a lot, we had to collect membership fees. Every revenue I could find, I would invest in the association.
Today, would you say that your investment have been productive ?
Not yet. I’m satisfied because I get calls : “Yes, Yann Astro, I’ve heard about you. You have an association”. Or young dancers I don’t know who greet me in the street saying : “Thanks a lot, I started to dance thanks to you. You inspired me. I want to dance like you”.
A which moment did you make money for yourself through dancing ?
There are dance shows, where you can create things with your dance crew. There are companies which can hire you just for these creations. I have been hired by Rachelle Agossou’s Walo Dance Company once just for a performance. When you step in this universe, you can sign several contracts : give courses, paid battles, etc. Even Kevin Ajalian‘s Jam Street Festival pays in millions … I have registered. It’s a little complicated for me to be paid because I cannot on every fields as the hospital take me a lot of time.
How do you prevent your hands from dancing when you are holding a bistouri ?
I’m finishing my sixth year of medicine. People find it difficult but without dance medicine would be complicated. When I train to dance, my body is tonic, reactive ; i’m not tired. When I do nothing, I go back home knocked out from my switches. The hospital is indeed constraining but with dance, I flush all my frustrations. When I have to be at the hospital, i’m there. I will never quit my responsibilities to go dance ; never ever. At the hospital, you learn how to take care of humans lives. When I have free time, I dance. It’s maybe not well seen by some people who think that we should not dance in medicine because a doctor is supposed to set an example in society, and blablabla. We need people to brave prejudices and prove that you can be a good doctor and succeed in dance.
You have not privileged dance enough to quit your studies. Is medicine what you do for a living and your critics-proof argument?
It’s a two side cutting remark. When I introduce myself as a doctor to some dancers or enterprises, i’m well thought of. People tell themselves : “he is a doctor, he must be serious”. It’s not so obvious though. Those are prejudices again. I have started medicine before dance. Medicine is another passion. When you take care of someone, they thank you. It’s a pleasure I have never felt in dance. The patient sees you as his savior, as his god. Even if you have not done anything special. Give up medicine for dance would be like giving up on human lives to go to dance. I would egoist. I have never thought about it. Medicine can be complicated sometimes, and make you want to quit. But I wouldn’t take that risk in Cotonou cause dance is a complicated world.Cotonou dance world is complicated Click To Tweet
To what point is it complicated ? All the passionated young dancers we’ve met are talking about destroying mindsets, How do one destroy mindsets ?
As long as mindsets won’t have evolved. When you are hungry, can you think to your passion ? It takes a filled belly for that. I have seen people, who exclusively dance for a living, eat a 100 FCFA cracker for diner, it’s difficult. My family counts on me. On a flip, I am not going to blow all the efforts
What is your palmarès in dance ?
With the crew Kaletas, we have won competitions such as Malta Guinness Street Dance (2nd price, 2010). There have been some little battles like the first edition of the Jam, where I represented Cotonou and won versus Calavi. At Senegal’s Battle Team All Styles, my team reached semi-finals. The next edition, in December 2015, we won. There was no cash price but the love of dance. The moment we shared was a lot stronger than money. In September 2016, I won the live hip hop stand up dance. After that I was more a judge than a participant.
You are 23 today. Where do you see yourself at 30 ?
I see myself gone international at 30. At 30, I must have built a name in international dance. When someone will say to a dancer “Yann Astro”, he will have to answer: “Hey, isn’t he a Beninese?”. Even if he didn’t know Benin, he will know that it is a dancer from Benin. That’s what I really want to do. So to speak, it you take at 30 and compare me to an European dancer, there mustn’t be a significant gap. I must be able to represent my country and shows that Africans can reach that level. In general we doesn’t matter. When African dancers put their videos on-line, others comment: “No, please stop, you are shaming dance”. Even in dance movies, we don't see Africans. Click To Tweet
Which battle marked you the most ?
It was the battle against my mentor. His name is Dexter. He is from Liberia but lives in Senegal. He taught me first hip hop dance steps, my first basics. It was him who used to correct me during my trainings. Facing him was like master versus student. I was really scared. I went in prepared to lose. I made mistakes. The one who taught you everything, that you admire find itself face to you and of course tells you that he will make you no favor. It was a slap. He won the battle. And it boosted me. I waiting him at the corner to beat him. But winning a battle doesn’t mean you are the best.
What are your dance styles ? What are the dances you practice ?
I’m a hip hop dancer. In the hip hop culture, the is dance, rap, DJ-ing, graffiti. In dance itself, there is hip hop dance : popping, house dance, break dance, locking. I love hip hop because it is a cultural mix. Even traditional dances, afro, Azonto, Alkaida can be used I a hip hop feeling. I have basics in all these basics. To grow up you have to expand your universe. I have recently started to take Salsa courses. I have tried traditional dances like Agbadja, Houngan which is the dance of the amazons from Abomey. A Hip-Hop dancer must have an open mind. Everything I learn can be useful.
Of all traditional dances you practice, in which do you find yourself ?
Agbadja it is. I’m not a good Agbadja dancer but it helps me a lot in controlling my chest and shoulders in hip hop dance. What defines my hip-hop as a Beninese? Hip hip is typical to each person. It can’t look like a Nigerian’s dance or a Senegalese’s because we each have our cultural values. You draw from it and develop it and make it your own universe. No dancer have to resemble another. It becomes plagiarism.
What’s the greatest thing your mentors in dance taught you? What values did they teach you alongside dance?
Humility, self-respect and respect for others. Everything I used to do before : hang out, drink, attend parties, hit on girls, was not important anymore. I’ve lost friends. With dance, I did not want to stay home anymore. I would think about my dance, how to work it, how to develop the association. Dance helped me lay down. What's the more important isn't to know who is the strongest. Click To Tweet What’s the more important, it’s sharing, the emotion. That’s what keeps the passion alive.